The SCUDD perspective

by H. P. Sauce

In November last year I wrote to the SCUDD list (an e-mail list for Drama and Performance academics) in order to solicit responses to a Guardian article about hourly paid and insecure academic employment.

Drawing attention to the statistic quoted in the article that ‘more than half of [teaching / research staff] – 53% – manage on some form of insecure, non-permanent contract’, and sharing some of my own experiences, I was interested in hearing what those on the list had to say, offering to collate any messages sent to me off-list in order to grant anonymity to those who wanted it.

A selection of quotes from this contact is presented below.

It is worth emphasising that a common thread of experience, that perhaps acts to enable this kind of employment, is that many of the people on these contracts come from a background of freelancing, where precarity is normalised, even if the pay is often significantly higher as a freelancer.

In my professional freelance work I would be very hesitant to accept such a low rate, and I have led workshops at a number of H.E. institutions all of which were paid at a higher hourly or service-based rate.

For freelancers, casual work in a university appeals because the monthly pay packet offers some increase in security, even though the pay is significantly less than what they’re used to, is only temporarily secure, and there is no official support for maternity / sick leave or other perks (my own experience has seen me lose a year’s work when I contacted the course director at a new place of employment to say that I was unwell and would be unable to come into work that week. By the time I had received the e-mail saying I was no longer required, I had been replaced).

Usually this work has to be supplemented by continuing to freelance, with all the accompanying logistical and emotional issues that accompany simultaneous management of multiple income streams. At least anecdotally, this would appear to be the norm for many academics on temporary contracts, at least within the arts, although further research is needed to see the proportion of academic staff that live in this way.

It’s also not ubiquitous, some casual workers come from a background of having a permanent position but felt that more flexible working arrangements might suit their situation better. With hindsight, this hope proved unfounded:

I left my permanent position after 4 years because I was expected to do my research during my holidays although in my contract research appeared to be an integral part of my position.

In those 4 years I felt not only exploited: I often felt like a commodity. And I feel it now even more as HP Lecturer. I hoped the flexibility as Visiting Tutor would make it possible to find a balance between professional career and teaching: but I was wrong.  I feel that lecturers (HP lecturers like me-in particular) can be used, squeezed to their maximum capacity and replaced. Younger and less experienced tutors will work longer hours for lower fees and that’s what makes Universities’ HR department happy…

… last year I ran a Commedia dell’Arte masterclass. This year the same university called me back but this time they would have paid me as HP tutor- not as one-off masterclass: that is less than half of the year before.

Someone else also wrote of how their freelance experience contrasted with their university work:

Last semester, with a few weeks advance notice, I co-convened, lectured and taught an entire undergraduate module on an hourly Graduate Teaching Assistant rate (about £16 per hour). I offered to do the work before I knew that the pay was so low. Silly me. There was no room for negotiation.

I have been a freelancer for over a decade, yet this was the first time I ever felt exploited. I feel so stupid looking back on this. I loved the job, but I hated the way it made me feel – undervalued, exhausted, and broke. I gave that job my very best.

Another complaint raised was around the lack of career progression. From my own experience which, thanks to a very supportive course convenor, is probably better than most, there’s still no default support for research now that I have finished my PhD (I’m thinking quite low grade things like library or JSTOR access, ethics review, training around funding – to be paid to put research projects together is a far-distant fantasy…). I also have no formal opportunity to contribute to course development or take on additional (paid) responsibilities.

Another respondent writes on the gap that appears to be opening up between PhD students and those with a secure academic position:

… from my point of view I haven’t even got to the interview stage yet, and have only seen Birkbeck advertise for hourly paid lectureships in London and the South East.  I am frankly appalled at the level of experience required to be even considered for a teaching role now; there is no distinction between full time, part time, and hourly paid roles in the job descriptions. I completed my PhD a year ago. I have teaching experience, I am published, I have organised research events, and I have secured small amounts of funding for my self-led research projects. None of this makes a dent.

They continue:

The REF is undoubtedly impacting what qualifies as essential criteria i.e. a strong record of research. It seems to me universities have given up on nurturing early career academics and are expecting us to come fully packaged. I believe the first step in alleviating this malaise is to stop counting ourselves as lucky in securing teaching work by recognizing the value we bring to universities and to students. We aren’t lucky; we are skilled practitioners who have worked damn hard in one of the harshest economic and political climates this country has seen for generations.

A number of permanent staff did express their disgust on the list, whilst Stephen Lacey, Chair of SCUDD, also responded. Whilst emphasising that campaigning for good employment practices is first and foremost a role for the unions, he did encourage SCUDD members to get in touch to join an Academic Career Development Committee that SCUDD is setting up with TAPRA and to share any other ideas that might be useful.

It wasn’t much, but it did feel that the issue of casualization, or more specifically the lack of support for post-docs is now, at least, in some small way, on the radar for SCUDD. It will be interesting to see how this develops (if it develops at all).

When fractional work is obtained, something that many of us on casual contracts see as something of a goal, things don’t necessarily improve. Despite a claimed desire for radical politics and social justice, theatre and performance departments are often very conservative in their organisation and enforce a rigid hierarchy.

I have been teaching for nearly 15 years on this basis [on a fractional contract], and there is never any increase in work from year to year (in fact hours get cut incrementally each year). When approached for more work, convenors – all of whom I have worked with extensively over that time – say they will ‘think of you’ if someone drops out of their team. But this never happens because when someone does, it turns out they will have appointed someone they were at college with, or have worked with. I have great student evaluations and very good results, so it’s not that.

In fact, no-one, not even my ex-supervisor, has read – or is even interested in reading – my research… and this means that when it comes to applying for things like Leverhulme there is no-one to write me a reference who is familiar with my research – which is a pre-requisite for their references. I go to conferences at my own expense and make wonderful contacts but our fields are so narrow that there are apparently 80 applications for every job I go for.

I was in the office recently when a colleague, referring to someone new, referred to her as being a ‘proper’ member of staff. There is a culture of status involved here as well as everything else, and this is, for me, the final straw that really makes me feel hopeless. After 15 years, and I am still not considered a ‘proper’ member of staff.

One very valuable response came from the Queen Mary Anti-Casualisation group. They introduced me – and the rest of SCUDD– to FACE, and gave many useful pointers on what action might be taken.

A very useful guide can be found here on the FACE Wiki, but others, not necessarily affiliated to FACE, had some tips:

So, what do I need in order to be part of positive change at my institution? The suggestion of Open Forums is good, but I can’t share my views with colleagues if I can’t afford to be a student rep, nor can I afford to attend events where my views can be heard.

With regard to this particular issue, I was passed some interesting research into the various benefits that course reps receive at a number of institutions. It’s too much to list here, but should anyone be interested, please contact me at hp-sauce@gmx.com and I’ll happily pass it on.

Inevitably, this was a tiny selection of the voices that have a stake in this issue, and whilst the stories individually told are depressingly bleak, I do take comfort in the fact that there are many brilliant minds and a lot of energised souls looking to address this.

This is a battle that can be won, probably not quickly, and definitely not individually, but I do take hope from knowing how many smart people are working together on this.

To finish, one last quote:

Teaching should give us joy, should inspire us all the time not in rare occasions and it should reflect our experience, knowledge and the quality of our work … first of all our pay should be fair!


* It is worth noting that not all the responses I received requested anonymity. However, to avoid drawing particular attention to those who were happy to share their identity, I have decided not to share the names of the five respondents quoted here.

Academic staff must stand in solidarity with each other to make the NSS boycott effective

The UCU and the National Union of Students both support the student boycott of this year’s National Student Survey (NSS). This boycott has been called in opposition to proposals in the Higher Education Bill to use data from the NSS to inform scores in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which in turn will be used to raise tuition fees.

FACE wholeheartedly supports this student-led boycott. It is the only effective strategy left to block the flagship policy of the Higher Education Bill and the serious threat it poses to our working conditions. There is, however, a great deal at stake here.

To win, the boycott cannot be limited to a few departments or institutions, but must be as solid and as wide as possible.

Not only that, but low participation rates for the NSS have in the past been used by university management to discipline departments and justify cuts to their internal budgets. If the boycott is not implemented consistently and effectively across departments and all higher education institutions, then there is a risk that small departments with exceptionally radical student bodies will be the only ones affected and management will use these low participation rates to punish them. We have a collective responsibility to each other to ensure that all members in our respective departments are fully aware of the boycott and know how best to support it.

What you can do:

  • Display these posters and flyers in your department: https://www.ucu.org.uk/boycott-the-nss.
  • Inform all your final year students about the boycott, and let them know that is supported by both the lecturers’ and the students’ union. (The official advice from the UCU is that although members are not allowed to impede students who wish to participate in the NSS, they can let students know about the UCU’s national and local position in support of the boycott. Moreover, if you are told by your Head of Department or line manager to refrain from informing students about the boycott, you should ask for the person concerned to put the instruction in writing and then immediately seek the advice of your UCU branch, obeying the instruction until further notice is given.)
  • Invite your local student union to speak about the boycott for five minutes at the beginning of all final year lectures and meetings.
  • Call a meeting of all UCU members in your department to ensure that everybody is informed about the NSS boycott and feels supported to follow union policy.
  • Ask your UCU branch president to write all Heads of Departments and your Vice Chancellor informing them of UCU support for the NSS boycott and requesting that they respect members’ right to follow official union policy. They should demand reassurance that no disciplinary action will be taken against members for doing so.. They should also demand that no undue pressure is placed on students to prevent them from participating in the boycott.

Casualised academic workers: join the national demo on 19 Nov!

Facebook event – please share and invite your colleagues!

On 19 November, students, education workers and supporters from around the country will march in London to defend education – to demand an end to college cuts, grants not debt, and to defeat the higher education reforms. (Main event: National DEMO: United for Education). As casualised workers, we are already hyper-exploited and underpaid, with women, BME, migrant and disabled workers hit particularly hard, and the government’s assault on education will only make things worse. So we will be marching too – to demand higher wages, job security, and a democratic, public education system properly resourced to treat and pay its workers decently.

It is absolutely essential that we turn back the tide of attacks on education. The brutal cuts to colleges will see an already-squeezed workforce face further job cuts, and intensified exploitation for those remaining. The higher education reforms will give a leg up to private businesses seeking to take the places of public institutions, and artificially impose an even more competitive market between universities – this will further undermine collective national bargaining and intensify the race to the bottom in the use of low-wage, short-term, insecure and zero-hours employment.

We must stop this – and through our collective strength we can. Join us on 19 November.

Facebook event – please share and invite your colleagues!

FACE welcomes decision by NUS this week to go for an all-out boycott of the National Student Survey

All university workers need to get behind the student boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) if we are serious about defending public higher education.

Why? Because the results of the NSS lie at the heart of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the flagship policy of the Tory government’s Higher Education Bill and its wide ranging agenda of privatisation and marketization.

The TEF claims to measure teaching excellence using big data such as scores in the NSS and graduate employment and earnings. Not only will this be a wholly blunt tool with which to measure real teaching quality, it will also place further bureaucratic burdens upon over-stretched university staff, distracting us from our job as teachers. Its real purpose is to enable an increase in student fees – institutions which score highly in the TEF will be able to raise tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-19, followed by even higher level fees in 2019-20.

The goal of the NSS boycott is to wreck the data upon which the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will be based. Even before the TEF is introduced, the government and HE managers already rely on the NSS as a crucial tool for the management of higher education and the disciplining of university workers. So an all-out student boycott of the NSS is the most effective strategy we now have to gain the leverage we need to stop the TEF and the higher education reforms as a whole. The joint NUS-UCU demonstration against the Bill on 19th November is most welcome, but given that the bill has already passed its second reading and is supported by the Tory majority in the Commons, we need a plan for action to halt and reverse the reforms if we cannot prevent their parliamentary passage. We can make it impossible to implement, and force the government to backtrack, through the collective action of staff and students in our places of work and learning.

The UCU national congress passed policy to support the boycott and individual UCU branches have also passed motions welcoming the NUS action. In doing so, university workers have taken a bold step, given how much pressure is currently placed upon us to ensure high student participation rates in the NSS due to its importance in university league tables. Often, poor results or low student turn-out for the NSS at a departmental level have led to staff having budgets cut or face bullying from university management. Only a mass nationwide boycott can ensure that low NSS participation rates in 2017 won’t be used against university staff.

We therefore need our union to put its words into action and offer practical and effective support for its members during this boycott.

This should include:

  1. Making clear to all members that we have the right to say no to advertising the NSS. We also have the right to speak out against university money being spent on bribing students to participate in the survey.
  2. Demanding that NSS results in 2017 not be used as the basis for determining university internal budgets and allocating resources between departments.
  3. Demanding that no disciplinary action be taken against apartments with low participation rates in the NSS, on the basis that the results for 2017 are illegitimate.

More info: Check out NUS’s announcement and the call to action from the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts

The Alternative White Paper As It Concerns The Casuals

For a political language to exist and be striking, it has to have some relation to proposed actions

John Berger

 

Academics aren’t all a bunch of radical lefties. But quite a few are. Dotted around the arts, humanities, social sciences and STEM, there are many who locate themselves in the wide, open space that is to the left of The Guardian. Yet, despite this relative density, contrary to the mythology of right-wing culture warriors, the University is a hotbed of neoliberal activity. Put bluntly, academics haven’t mounted any serious resistance within their institutions to cuts, to the commodification of research, to the consumerisation of education or to the bizarre quasi-Stalinist system of market discipline meets high-handed state intervention. This culture of complicity, a product of fear as much as acquiescence, is something casualised members of staff are acutely aware of. Vividly confronted by rampant managerialism and marketisation, it is this academic ‘community’ that notes most the absence of any institutional counterweight to their lot.

Thus when an initiative like the Alternative White Paper For Higher Education, In Defence of Public Higher Education: Knowledge for a Successful Society is put together, an alternative to current HE orthodoxy, casuals are prone to sit up and take note (if not overburdened by more immediate needs). Is another University possible? Alas the Alternative White Paper comes up a good way short in this regard. An unfair charge maybe, particularly given the paucity of genuine reasoned alternatives to the HE status quo and the much that is good about the Paper. But unless the Alternative White Paper’s major lacuna–we need to talk about agency–is addressed, then casuals’ material lessons about the University’s relations of production will continue to go unfused with the policy wonkery of the Alternative White Paper.

 

Silent Staffrooms

Academics are on the whole a supine lot. In the byzantine committee-based ecology of our most prestigious seats of learning, lecturers, readers and professors more or less comply with the letter and the spirit of this Government’s ideological priorities. Casualised staff note this all too clearly. Academic ‘leadership’, top or middle, has done little to address the precarious labour model found in our HE factories: 9-month contracts and zero-hour living are too often seen as lessons in character building, an unfortunate result of the shortage (never the distribution!) of precious resources. The idea that, instead of merely signing letters to The Guardian or Times Higher, you locally lobby and organise around material, relations of production issues like casualisation, alongside students and academic-related staff, is sadly far too vulgar and radical for a great many of our open-ended contracted colleagues. The micro level of power–the tacit, rigid internal doxa of quite a number of academic departments–is to be left pretty much to its own devices. Voting for the Greens or Remain, the occasional cosy, incestuous, bland tweet about how just nice students are, being on a panel whose title contains the word ‘radical’: more than enough.

It is this state of affairs that is arguably at its most telling when it comes to generating an effective campus politics. Yes, academics get that Tory policy in the form of the White Paper (WP), Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, the 2016 Higher Education Bill, and the incoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is to be instinctively opposed. However, what is to done presently within our institutions as an alternative surely needs a look in, too. To moan about reform, to have a right good whinge over a glass of moderately priced vino, without contemplating what to build instead is liable to fall back on private, individual righteousness (me against the philistines) and to indulge in Nimbyism. To quote William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry, ‘[b]lind modernization needs fighting with insightful modernization. Otherwise, ‘we’ are left simply trying to erect blue plaques in remembrance wherever possible, while ‘they’ rev up the bulldozers’.

 

Down with Current, Up with the New

Presumably it is this exciting task that is the mission statement of the Alternative White Paper (AWP). The document is a collective product of the Campaign for the Public University’s John Holmwood, UCU Left activists and others associated with such bodies as Council for the Defence of British Universities. The AWP calls for ‘a proper debate about the future of UK Higher Education’ (AWP, p. 4) as regards the Government’s latest reforms, currently (July 2016) being rushed through Parliament and the sector. While such rhetoric is hardly a tocsin–one can imagine the facile sentence ‘we need to have a conversation’ slotting right in here–the AWP makes clear its distance from the the status quo, quoting the Magna Charta Universitatum: ‘…its [the univeristy] research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority’ (AWP, p. 34). Holmwood, et al challenge at every turn the values and rationale behind current mainstream HE policy as embodied in the WP, its derivative legislation and sector architecture.

For instance, the AWP unpicks the supposedly link in the WP between the WP’s stated goals of greater access–‘[f]or the first time, all approved higher education providers will be required to demonstrate their commitment to widening participation and fair access’ (WP, p.57)–and markedly better teaching, and the actual consequences of the WP’s policy proposals. Take the regressive outcomes of the TEF. In order to boost the key TEF metric of student satisfaction, and thus gain official approval to raise their tuition fees, universities will prefer bland, comfort food teaching to the test, innovative pedagogy suffering as a result. In order to boost another TEF metric, employability, universities will be inclined to recruit those students, privileged, moneyed, who have an inbuilt social advantage when it comes to securing a glittering occupation (AWP, pp. 28-29).

The funding model of HE comes under direct attack in the AWP. Firstly, far from the state getting out of the university business as the libertarian talking points around the student ‘customer’ suggest, a government debt management regime exists, interfering and poking its nose in, to cover ‘the shortfall between annual outlay and annual repayments’ of student loans. This commitment, ‘close to £90bn’ (AWP, p. 9), means that the government has to have some means of controlling and securing repayment, hence TEF and its function of justifying the risk of fluctuating repayment rates through the employability metric. HE becomes a cunning fiscal wheeze to make good on the government’s outlay; students and educators are liabilities that need guaranteeing, not an investment bound to generate new, hitherto unrecognised social value. The funding of universities is to be governed by the extent to which individual institutions can guarantee repayments in the form of ensuring ‘good’ jobs for its post-students, while the true financial burden, the burden, for example, placed on students and teaching staff through universities’ fixation on investing in large capital projects to pull in the punters at the expense of investing in teaching labour, is sidelined.

By its very definition a HE market will consist of those staff and students lucky enough to be at a so-called ‘top’ university, and those who aren’t. If deregulations means a slew of providers ‘low scale, lower fee and low quality’ (AWP, p. 5), it is the debt-averse student who ultimately determines certain providers’ viability, not the virtues of a good state-sanctioned HE service. Moreover, universities, in being encouraged to focus on the short-term needs of an incoming generation of fee-paying customers, are subject to no countervailing tendency to root themselves in the local communities that support them: if London Met were to go bust, the effect would just not be contained or limited to those whose responsible, deserving (in the pure logic of the market) of its consequences. The externalities involved in such a law of the jungle are ignored.

 

There’s a ‘But’ Coming….Where the Casuals Come In

When compared, though, with its ugly WP twin, the AWP has a strategic silence. Unlike the WP with its commitment to the dynamic logic of the market–‘[c]ompetiton between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game …Higher Education is no exception’ (WP, p. 8)–there is no comparable organisational insight in the AWP into the collective action, the campaign necessary to oppose and replace the Government’s, and its willing henchmen such as Universities UK and the Higher Education Policy Institute, policy platform.

If the ‘real’ WP is about creating a market that, in theory, will work of its accord, establishing and defining individual entities, properly costing and administering transactions between them, and then letting rip (albeit with regulators charged to intervene where there is market failure, for instance in the case of widening participation), then one might expect its alternative to sketch out the ‘other’ dynamic, one based on social solidarity and collective decision-making. Not so in the AWP. As a casualised member of staff, all too aware of what happens when the market is let rip, and when power resides with the buyers as opposed to the sellers of labour, the apolitical, slightly stand-offish nature of the AWP is marked: less ‘what is to be done’ and more ‘what someone could do but we haven’t really given a thought as to whom’.

Are the writers of the AWP crossing the fingers and hoping that Vice-Chancellor’s read and acknowledge ‘you have a point there’, or were they addressing themselves to the strategic challenges of mobilising university workers, core and periphery, around an alternative institutional university arrangements? I fear the former.

I don’t want to be too unfair to the AWP. Its constative value should be stressed (if not its performative). In it, Holmwood, et al argue for proper public accountability, accurate social costing as regards the value of higher education, and a UK state committed to stepping back and preserving academic freedom and curiosity-driven research. These together constitute a decent, humanist liberal democratic University, ‘open institutions that educate their students in the values of critical debate’ (AWP, p. 34), and that allow good scholarship to flourish. Holmwood, et al re-appropriate concepts Minister for Universities and the less dangerous Johnson brother, Joseph Edmund, sprinkles around in his ‘Foreword’ to the WP: ‘open democracy’; critical thinking; education for all ‘irrespective of their background’ (WP, pp. 5-6). Critically, for Holmwood, et al, the government’s further deregulation of HE, allowing private, for profit providers to enter the fray, competing for the student buck by cutting educational corners, diminishes the state’s regulatory capacity to provide a decent education for all, whatever nightwatchman power it still retains.

These virtues, as promoted by the AWP, are ones I am sure that are shared by anti-casualisation HE activists. The fact that teaching is held in less regard than research in the political economy of HE, and thus under-invested in–‘…increasing amounts of face-to-face teaching performed by junior academics on insecure contracts’ (AWP, p. 32)–assures the research ‘stars’ of today, meeting today’s late capitalist utilitarian needs, are entrenched at the expense of researchers of the future stuck in roles which offer no time for research. Instead of academics being viewed holistically, the quality of their research and teaching seen in the round, it is all reduced to one-sided quantitative indicators, the TEF being another prime example, which encourage careerist gaming and discourage curiosity-driven knowledge generation. In terms of positive academic freedom, the voice of staff on casual contracts is often marginalised in our universities in favour of managers and budget-holding members of permanent staff: why risk speaking up when the perceived target of that ‘criticism’ holds your job in their hands? The TEF, for all its claims that it will, to quote Jo Johnson ‘link the funding of teaching in higher education to quality (WP, p. 6), and ensure teaching will no longer be ‘the poor cousin of research’ (WP, p. 12), does not address the input problem, the contractual material status of staff who teach, and, rather, goes down the route of high-handed ‘bureaucratic monitoring’ (AWP, p. 32)

If the WP is so admirable in its diagnosis of our ills, why the criticism? Let me initially respond by way of an anecdote. When discussing with UCU colleagues from a nearby University an event around the WP precursor, the Green Paper, I ventured inviting Andrew McGettigan, he of The Great University Gamble, a shrewd analyst of HE’s current configuration and AWP contributor (AWP, p. 2). The response, sotto voice: ‘not those bloody PowerPoints again’. Months latter, listening to McGettigan at a UCU-organised set of presentations, listening to his quasi-Gradgrindian mantra about the importance of facts and knowing what’s what, that PowerPoint comment hit home, not out of data antipathy, but out of a longing for the language of action, of performance, of the urgency still to what is to be done, Lenin’s (or Chernyshevsky’s) urgent question.

The PowerPoint comment comes back again now, reading the AWP.

Policies; proposals; directives; strategic choices to be taken by associations of students and staff; the type of organisational demands and opportunities that a campus left needs to take; less isolated writing, more interconnected praxis: these are the organisational challenges that require careful deliberation. They are barely touched upon in the AWP. A sober assessment of the balance of forces on individual campuses; a political (not abstract macro-policy) deconstruction of the modern University; the delineating of the social trends and groups that can worked with to implement objectives; and a detailed account of the agents and agency needed for the reconstitution of HE (when the AWP states ‘[w]e need a proper debate’ [p.4] who is this ‘we’?): these are tasks which need actioning and accounting for.

Perhaps the only real list of firm policies in the AWP is in the academic governance section. It ends with a list of fairly solid proposals for increased non-managerial academic representation on academic boards, based presumably on the Scottish experience. Even here, though, this section seems to ignore ‘how?’. In the case of the WP, its authors, its backers, know the full spectrum of the WP has high politics, executive agency behind it, the consent of campus civil society be largely damned. This luxury, going back to the ‘collaboration’ points of my introductory remarks, is not afforded to academic counter-hegemonists. We need to sketch out our agents of change. We need to consider different groups of staff and students, the identities at play in the University, the makeup of campus civil society. Holmwood, et al may have better things to do than simulate Gramsci in his cell wrestling with practical conundrums of power and agency, but one would have thought they’d have at least given it a try. Academics aren’t fighting back: why is that?

Look at the language and ambition of the WP. ‘We will simplify the regulatory landscape’ (WP, p, 9); ‘…two specific, clear goals on widening participation’ (WP, p. 14); ‘Summary of decisions’ (WP, p. 18); ‘…have a power’ (WP, p. 66), ‘the creation of UKRI will act as a driver’ (WP, p. 79). Here is a no humble treatise. Here is a catalyst, firing off policy, arrogant yes in assuming that executive agencies know best and not acknowledging how contested its propositions are, but highly astute in drawing up a problem/crisis–alleged poor teaching and few incentives to improve it; a lack of competition equals complacency amongst former polytechnics; a need to finish the job of previous HE reforms–and looking to solve it though intervention and active governance. Here are proponents of neoliberal education diagnosing and strategising simultaneously.

The AWP, when it comes to such action-orientated plotting, is deficient therein. Its conclusion lacks any core demand. It highlights that academics are not innately wise dispensers of knowledge, that research is about sanctifying a method of collegial collaboration, that private imperatives are a threat to democratic epistemic endeavor. But the conclusion has no provisional plan to enact the democratic university, no identified agent and directive policies to do so.

 

Making a Difference, Making an Impact

Strikingly, the AWP ends on a depressing objective note: ‘[h]igher education is now fully dependent on political authority and economic power’ (AWP, p. 34). The subjective is silent. When Holmwood, et al say ‘[t]his Alternative White Paper aims to correct…imbalance’ (AWP, p. 4), it seems curious that the rebalancing is primarily transcendental than immanent; that is, the changes that the AWP alludes to–greater academic involvement and freedom, more state regulation of resource (…greater restraint…[AWP. p. 8]), developing ‘strong working relationships with community partners to ensure successful outreach work’ (AWP, p. 17)–are left to some higher power to make good. Despite skewering the Government’s formal commitment to social goods by showing the contradictory outcomes of their policies, Holmwood, et al don’t go further and suggest how is it that a we wins, how a we can position itself to bring about the beginnings of an alternative University.

To go back to the causal lot, as a peripheral members of the academic club, given access to the photocopy if we’re lucky, casualised members of staff could be that agent, marginalised but au fait, through their experience of the shop floor, with the lacunae of the modern University. Casualised staff, in other words, are well positioned to foster alliances with students, particularly postgraduate students, to release the untapped pool of potential amongst underinvested in, subordinate short-term casual staff, and are thankfully wise to the romantic, idealist elitist guff professors and senior staff sprout in promoting the idea of an ‘Aκαδήμεια’ set against the UK’s bureaucratic-authoritarian state.

The lack of discussion concerning UCU (or any other membership body) is indicative I feel. UCU is not the answer to everyone’s prayers in and of itself, but when it comes to collective action, unless the Council for the Defence of British Universities is about to kick off, it contains the core dynamic of an association of diverse academic actors coming to work together for a common purpose, the starting point for an alternative University. The WP has the Office for Students, TEF, research bodies, enthused civil servants and a wish to create a new HE architecture; according to the AWP, sans a union or mutual clubbing together, we only have a shallow, ill-defined ‘we’.  

Now, the drafters of the AWP may contend they could do only so much, could go only so far. They had no brief for a edict-filled, peremptory manifesto, although for those Fighting Against Casualisation in Education activists attending the ‘founding’ meeting of the AWP, the Second Convention for Higher Education, it was clear that the AWP was intended to have some sort of popular, Convention-backed mandate. This is why some of us came. It was thus particularly jarring, not to say disappointing, to see how the nascent participatory animus resulting from an open meeting such as the Convention was used to give a seal of approval to a document Holmwood, et al had already effectively drafted. The Convention was, in effect, some sort of democratic cover. This was a wasted opportunity. The organisational imperative of an alternative University, hinted at at the Convention’s rhetoric, was neglected; the AWP is, to put a twist on a well-used phrase, an academic exercise, a revision/extension of Holmwood’s previous AWP. While it must give Holmwood, et al great comfort in being so right at least twice, this is somewhat of a small mercy compared with an honest assessment of how to mobilise and formulate academic private dissent into public counter-reformist zeal and concrete institutional political intent.

 

Conclusion

Laughably, it is sometimes said that the educated left have followed their master Gramsci’s advice and taken over the education of our youth, instead of the impossible task of convincing a national polity that they should vote left-wing leaders into office. Nothing, as casualised staff can testify, is furthest from actuality in our universities. In fact, we need to start such Gramscian maneuvering. The AWP, an excellent encapsulation of the sort of humanist, liberal University that an in denial Government spokespeople would claim that the Government is in principle for, does not set the scene adequately. It allows, by not asking the right questions, leftist academics to continue to burnish their weak countercultural credentials, evincing indignation, declaring an emotional affinity with the principles of the AWP, with all the force of a Facebook like. Holmwood, et al do not even venture to pose the fundamental questions: what are you going to do? And if you can’t, what can be done to get you and others to a place where you can. Those of us on the academic left who are reflexive about our work grasp the distance between the vision of education in the AWP and the notion of HE held by successive governments and successive generations of Heads of School, Deans and Senior Management Team is one thing; the issue is how to fight it. Candidly, we don’t need another white paper; we need a strategy. This is how we should be devoting what little time and resource we alt-academics have.

Collecting information about working conditions

One of the obstacles to organising among casualised academics is the difficulty we have in knowing how many casualised colleagues we have, who they are, or what their terms of employment are. Employers will almost never give us this information. Union branch officers can be a source of help, but are often hampered by a lack of information, for example when members regularly move between institutions without updating the Union, or work at more than one institution at once. Membership density among casualised staff is low too, unfortunately. In addition, casualised staff are likely to have heavy teaching burdens and/or be focused on producing enough research to win them an eventual permanent post. For all these reasons and more it can be hard both to identify the exact nature of casualisation at an institution and to mobilise around it.

In this position, it can be useful to organise a survey of casual staff at your institution, to find out what work they’re doing, which departments they’re doing it in, how much they get paid, whether (or to what extent!) they end up doing extra unpaid work, whether they have a contract, and so on. A survey can be useful not just as a way of gathering information, but as a starting point (or continuing point) for a campaign and a way to mobilise colleagues. Such a survey can be set up to run online through a website like surveymonkey.com, though it’s useful to promote it through offline means like posters, flyers, and face to face discussions too. There are more ideas about setting up this kind of campaign on the FACE wiki page, which is at http://fightingcasualisation.wikidot.com/

FACE members at City University who are required to teach as part of their research studentships set up the Research Students who Teach survey. It is attached here as an example of the kinds of questions that might be asked, though of course these will vary from case to case.

City FACE members will be releasing the results of this survey soon and moving on to the next stage of their campaign. Watch this space for details!

Victory for King’s College London GTAs (but the fight isn’t over yet…)

GTAs at King's College London

What has been won and what remains to be done? In our final post of 2015/6, Fair Pay for GTAs takes stock of our achievements thus far and outlines plans for the future.

The academic year is winding down and those Graduate Teaching Assistants who’ve signed up to teach again in the new term will notice some improvements to their contracts! These significant gains were made possible by the courage and dedication of all those who contributed to our campaign.

From the organisers to the GTAs and students who signed our petitions to the union reps who fought alongside us, each and every one of you deserves a well-earned pat on the back.

First thing’s first: what exactly have we managed to win for GTAs in 2016/7 and how does it compare to where we started/what we asked for?

1) Essay marking

  • 2015/6: 5,000 words per-hour
  • What we asked for:…

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